Work camps: disciplining the body – a review

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There’s a new review of Working Men’s Bodies on the humanities and social science website H-Net. The author is Jihan Abbas, who is both a disability activist and a scholar of disability and inclusion in the labor market and social policy. She summarises the book as covering ‘a broad range of sites and colonies that were used to enforce work and discipline of various and diverse bodies’.

Here is her conclusion:

The book discusses important strands concerning the meaning of work and constructions of male bodies, and it will be of interest to a broad and interdisciplinary audience. It not only provides a rich and thorough history of work camps but also highlights the experiences of those living and working within them and the impact of policy decisions and labor practices. Field illustrates public understanding across space and time, the role of training, and the influence of labor policies. It is an important contribution to shared understandings of how bodies are shaped and managed through public discourse and policy interventions.Working Men’s Bodies will therefore also appeal to readers interested in sociology, labor policy and the gendered nature of work.
If you want to read the full review, you can find it here.

Teaching adults dancing- it’s murder!

I enjoy a good crime novel, or sometimes even quite a bad one. My most recent read was a novel called Ostseetod (Death on the Baltic) by Eva Almstädt, a popular writer who sets her stories in the North German port city of Lübeck. Some of you will already know that I enjoy spotting scenes that occur in an adult education context, and Ostseetod provides a great, if brief, example.

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Lucie Warnke, a middle aged mother married to a furniture dealer, is a dancer by occupation. Because the family live in a small and remote town in Schleswig-Holstein, the opportunities for dancing are few and far between, so she makes a living from teaching local women and children. The passage is set in a morning class, with Lucie (‘for the hundred and fifty thousandth time) telling the women: ‘Chests out, tummies in, legs higher, ladies – higher!’.

The seven participants, we are told, are aged between their mid-20s and mid-60s, and are hoping to stay supple with a mix of dance and gymnastics. Privately, Lucie thinks the class is good but useless for the woman, and imagines herself telling them that they just need to eat less. ‘But this type of class was the bread under the butter that Lucie at present needed’, for not only does she need her own spending money, but her husband charges her rent for the dancing space.

I can’t go much further without spoiling the plot, though that might not matter much to people who don’t read German, as German and Austrian crime fiction – which can be absolutely excellent – is rarely translated; the only exception seems to be Nele Neuhaus. What is interesting here is what adult education does for the novel.

I’ve speculated previously about why adult education classes are such ideal sites for crime writers (read more here). In this brief scene, Almstädt tells us something about two characters: Lucie, with her best years of dancing (and life?) now behind her, and her more-or-less useless husband Florian, as well as the relationship between them. She also communicates something about the local community and its limitations.

Almstädt can assume that her readers will see nothing unusual about a woman earning a few euros by teaching a class in a spare room. Germany has a thriving public adult education sector, as well as a lively voluntary sector. But it is also very common to see opportunities for private educational activities. On a short walk home last night from the football, between the bus stop and my home, I spotted a firm offering yoga classes for busy professionals and a flyer for a series of comedy workshops.

Almstädt belongs to an association of women crime writers called Mörderische Schwestern, the German chapter of Sisters in Crime, which provides mentoring and support for less experienced authors.Now I think about it, Mörderische Schwestern provides a kind of adult education. It surely can’t be long until someone writes a murder story set in their ranks  – or perhaps they have already?

Should we mourn a UK exit from Erasmus?

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Image created by the Erasmus+ project Home Sweet Home

One consequence of the Brexit decision is that our educational institutions will at some stage have to withdraw from ERASMUS+, the European Commissions’s scheme for staff and student mobility. Or so says the Guardian, in a report that has been widely circulated – and lamented – on social media. The Guardian quotes Ceri Jones, formerly the Commission’s Director General for Education, describing the UK exit from ERASMUS+ as “a tragedy of staggering proportions for universities throughout the country”.

As usual, the reality is more complicated. First, although Guardian story describes ERASMUS+ as a scheme for university student mobility, it is of course much broader in its reach, encompassing schools, adult education and vocational training. Second, the UK remains part of the programme until the actually UK leaves the EU. Third, if and when the UK does leave the EU, its membership of ERASMUS+ (and other educational and research programmes) can continue, if the UK and rest of the EU so decide. Fourth, the UK can replace ERASMUS+ with new partnerships, but with different countries.

So hardly a “tragedy of staggering proportions”. Of course, continuing membership of EU programmes or the development of new exchange programmes will cost money. The simplest solution would be to use the resources currently allocated to ERASMUS+ to fund the new schemes. In practice, I imagine that a few Vice Chancellors (including those publicly lamenting the UK’s departure from ERASMUS+) will then start lobbying to have direct control over the funds, and then promptly switch it to other activities. But that’s no reason for not having exchange schemes.

My own preference would be the development of an entirely new exchange scheme. I’m not a great fan of ERASMUS+, mainly because it is yet another case of public funding being directed towards the most privileged. A HEFCE report in 2010 found that UK participants were “disproportionately young, female, white and middle-class, and are academic high-achievers”. A subsequent House of Lords enquiry reported that “students from ethnic minorities; with a disability; who were older; or who had parents from a non-professional background, were less likely to participate in the Erasmus programme”.

These are not new findings, of course. And neither is it surprising that an attractive but costly education opportunity appeals most to the socially and culturally best endowed. Nor is it surprising that part-time students, those with caring responsibilities, and those with best reason to be concerned about racism are largely excluded.Then there is the whole question of language competence, which in the UK is tightly tied to the school which you attend, which in turn is of course socially biassed towards the middle class.

The House of Lords report also confirmed that the European Commission had limited data about the effects of the scheme, and didn’t even know much about who took part in it and what they did. Again, this had been known for some years.

As I say, then, ERASMUS+ is deeply flawed. I found it something of a tragedy (though not of staggering proportions) that the European Commission did not take the opportunity to reform and modernise it. But then an organisation that is happy with the Common Agricultural Policy is unlikely to be dissatisfied with ERASMUS+.

Leaving ERASMUS+ offers some attractive possibilities. First, it allows for a bit of attention to equity and justice when designing new programmes. Second, it allows for an expansion of bilateral partnerships, which might differ by country rather than all taking a standardised shape. Third, it allows for an extension of partnerships beyond the limits of EU membership (though it could certainly include EU members). Fourth, we could rebalance the distribution of funding, so that it no longer strongly favours higher education.

All of which would be no bad thing. If we recall the intentions of the scheme’s founders, European student mobility was designed to foster a European identity. It seems to have done that rather successfully among one part of our population, but it did little or nothing for those who are the losers from globalisation. The consequences are with us now.

On being European. Or: where is Iceland?

I love Iceland, a country of majestic and sometimes awe-inspiring beauty. On most criteria, it is also a good place to live. In the OECD’s Better Life Index, Iceland ranks at the top in jobs and earnings, and above the average in social connections, subjective well-being, health status, environmental quality, personal security, and education and skills.

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A volcanic crater in the Grimsnes area, and cold enough in June for me to need a hat. Shortly after this photo was taken, though, a naked couple jumped in for a swim.

But is it European? This thought originally struck me during the global wave of laughter that greeted England’s humilating defeat by Iceland in the Euros. Don’t think I have the slightest interest in soccer, because I don’t. And I’m certainly not demanding that the Euros be replayed just because Iceland isn’t really European.

This isn’t a matter of EU membership. Europe is not identical with the European Union, and it is perfectly possible to be European and outside the EU.It’s ironic, though, that newspapers and others greeted England’s ignominious defeat with cries of “Brexit2”, conveniently forgetting that Wales was still in the tournament while Iceland had never been in the EU.

Then I remembered visiting the area around Þingvellir (or Thingvellir), a marvellous national park that includes a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This means that Rejkyavik, and therefore most of Iceland’s population, live in America rather than Europe.

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Not that this geological argument carries much weight with Icelanders, who like to think of themselves as Europeans and definitely not Americans. That got me brooding on why they might think of themselves in this way. And why so many other nations seem to be really keen to enjoy such symbolic markers of Europeanness as – wait for it now – the Eurovision song contest.

I enjoy a bit of pedantry; it can be a lot of fun. In this case, though, the question of Iceland leads me to ask what we mean when we say we are ‘European’, and who we then define as the non-European. The non-European unperson can be the refugee facing the enormous steel fences that Europe (= EU) is erecting along its borders, or the supposedly uneducated and insular Sun-reading cultural dopes who voted for Brexit.

The ‘European’ by contrast is cultivated and cosmopolitan. In a piece of desperately bad timing – or good, depending on your point of view – one academic published a piece in mid-June that celebrated the European (=EU) student mobility programmes as the modern Grand Tour.Well, Erasmus+ schemes certainly take the most privileged full-time, young, white undergraduates, though that wasn’t what he meant to pount out.

This world view rather neatly encapsulates a certain condescending mindset, which celebrates the cultural and educational construction of a cosmopolitan elite, the winners of the Euro-globalisation race. By contrast, the ‘other’ – the loser from globalisation – is constructed as brutish, stupid, and hopelessly provincial.

 

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Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

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Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.

 

 

Brexit: a wake-up call for adult education?

An article with this intriguing title features on the EPALE website for Germany. Google provides an English translation which is all but incomprehensible (here), so here’s a few tasters in the meantime.

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The author, Susanne Lattke, is a researcher at the German Institute for Adult Education; while she is presumably writing in a personal capacity, she is an experienced and informed commentator on European education policies.

Lattke starts by suggesting that actual Brexit is not inevitable, and even if it takes place most member states will move quickly to protect their interests through bilateral deals with the UK. She suggests that the rest of the EU are likely to want the UK to remain within the education programmes, offering a similar relationship to that already enjoyed by Switzerland.

Of course, we cannot be sure that all the four devolved education ministries will wish to fund participation in Erasmus+ in general and Grundtvig in particular. Even if they do, Lattke points out that it will become harder to secure British participants, and this will be a loss for other European partners.

The ‘wake-up call’ is, in her view, a challenge to the self-image and self-understanding of adult education as a space of tolerance and openness. She sees the Brexit debate as characterised by ‘a culture of political confrontation’, in which there was ‘little trace of respect for other opinions or a responsibly-exercised “active citizenship.

Unlike some in the UK, Lattke does not think that inadequate knowledge and low education alone explain the poor quality of the British debate. However, she does think it reinforces the need for ‘political-social education and learning’, not so much to transmit the ‘right’ attitudes and information as to open up options for ‘the growing number of potentially frustrated citizens’. And that, she concludes, is not solely a lesson for the UK.

One comment had appeared by today, from Christina Norwig, who largely agreed with Lattke. However, she also pointed out that older adults – who largely voted for Brexit – were the least likely to have participated in EU mobility schemes.

I largely share these views, and posted my immediate thoughts here. It is, though, interesting to see them shared by an experienced German adult educator and scholar. Hopefully a proper translation of Lattke’s post will appear shortly in English, and will generate further constructive debate in both languages. Meanwhile, I commend the EPALE website as a great resource for all who are interested in adult learning.

Skills and the regeneration of coastal communities

Coastal communities rarely make the headlines, but they are among the UK’s poorest areas. For every small former fishing port with a Michelin-starred restaurant there are dozens whose populations face unemployment, precariety and low pay. Educational standards are well below average, as are such critical infrastructural resources as transport and broadband.

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Whitby. Photo by R Jordan, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

These criticisms are hardly new, yet current government regeneration initiatives are failing. In the words of a new report from the British Hospitality Association, ‘policy across Government is uncoordinated and often at odds’. Instead, the BHA sets out a seven-point plan for central government – including the devolved administrations – to attract and promote opportunities for investment in coastal economies’.

Skills, I am pleased to see, are one of the key areas for investment. A large proportion of projects supported by the Lottery through the Coastal Communities Fund involved upskilling, and it would be rather nice to see a serious evaluation of these before going much further down this track. We might also ask why BHA members are not already doing far more to raise the skills and qualifications of their workforce. Still, it’s good to see the BHA recognise the need for improving skills.

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Point 6 of the BHA’s seven-point plan

Moreover, the BHA proposals for skills are placed within the context of growing demand for labour. I’ve blogged about skills and coastal communities before (see more here), expressing the view that far too much is said about skills supply and far too little about skills demand and utilisation. The question here is whether the BHA proposals, which rely heavily on tax breaks and infrastructure investment, are enough.

The basic economic problem of coastal communities derive from over-reliance on inherently low-skilled, low-paid industry sectors such as those related to tourism, which often also require part-time and seasonal workers. Seasonality of work also makes it difficult for workers to progress in their careers and reduces the incentive to train, as each job may be with a different employer. Part-time work promotes a tendency for people to hold multiple jobs, and again reduces the incentive to train for any of then.
Many of the most highly educated young people leave in order to attend university. Whatever their intentions at the time, they rarely return after graduating. Essentially, this means that new skills either have to be recruited from outside, or developed in the existing – ie adult – workforce. And adult education provision, for reasons of small scale and under-resourcing, is rarely a strong feature in these areas.
Tackling these structural problems is likely to require more than tax breaks and better infrastructure. It also means breaking the over-reliance of coastal communities on tourism and hospitality.This isn’t how the BHA sees it of course (their report offers the model of Folkestone, whose cultural quarter and triennial arts festival are designed to boost tourism).
Diversifying the economy is challenging, and not always comfortable for existing tourist businesses, as can be seen from the early controversies over the new offshore operations hub at Whitby, which has already started to recruit apprentices as well as bringing highly skilled workers into the town. One side effect has been to strengthen the local training system, with a small but successful fisheries school developing into other maritime areas. This seems to me a much better path to go down than further increasing these communities’ dependence on the low skill, low wage tourism sector.

“Research and education are the sinews of economic war”: trying to build a European spirit

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Jacques Delors. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

In January 1989, Jacque Delors (President of the European Commission) gave a lengthy speech to the European Parliament. His topic was the implementation of the Single European Act – signed off, among others, by Margaret Thatcher – which created a single market across the ten twelve member states. Creating the single market, he said, required more than moving to free trade within the EU. It also meant giving the European Community ‘a little more soul’.

Liberalising capital movements, harmonising standards and mutual recognition of diplomas were all essential steps. But, he said, the trouble is that people ‘cannot fall in love’ with a single market. In order to win their consent, Delors proposed that the Commission had to think broadly about how to build a ‘European consciousness’.  And it was in this context that he proposed to expand the Commission’s role in education and research.

Delors’ rationale for a European education policy was couched in strictly economic terms, as a matter of competitiveness. Hence the vivid metaphor:

At a time of profound change, research and education are the sinews of economic war

He was also clearly pondering cultural battles, worrying over Japanese domination of audio-visual communications technologies and American domination of content, as well as environmental regulation, international aid, workers’ rights, monetary policy and a variety of other themes. But it is striking that he started with education and research as a means of engaging young Europeans and providing ‘tangible proof that the Community is not a technocratic machine but a human venture’.

This speech also marks the start of Delors’ attempt to broaden ideas of education beyond schooling, and to embrace what he would subsequently call ‘lifelong learning’. He acknowledged that the Commission’s powers over education were limited, but suggested that this could be changed, not least because the challenges facing education itself were changing: “Ten years after we leave school or university, our skills can be obsolescent’.

I stumbled across this speech online, thanks to the European Parliament’s digitisation programme. I missed it twenty years ago, when I was researching for a book on European Union policies for education and training. It therefore helps fill in a gap in the history of European policies for education, and shows that the idea of lifelong learning was there from the start.

Delors’ speech also gives us an indication of what the EU has been missing in recent years. I’m not arguing for or against his political strategy, but rather noting that he had one which involved trying to engage citizens in the process of European construction. Jean-Claude Juncker presumably has strengths, though the only one I know of is designing business-friendly tax regimes, but thinking strategically about how you get people to ‘fall in love’ with a free trade area is not among them.

The fall-out after Brexit rather illustrated this point. Here in Germany, a large number of commentators have lamented the inability of Europe’s currently leaders to win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, in the UK, it turns out that there is a cultural chasm between those who turn out to have developed some kind of European identity and those who identify strongly with their nation.The first group felt bereft after the vote, the second group were jubilant.

I’m not so concerned about the rights and wrongs of this as the extent of the division, and the way in which the referendum has laid it bare. How do we deal with it? And does Europe need a new Delors in Brussels – a Delor for our own times? Or is it once more a project for technocrats, and a playground for globalisation’s winners?

The European crisis and the intellectuals: Habermas and Vargas Llosa

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Habermas: photograph by Wolfram Huke, licensed under Creative Commons

Jürgen Habermas, long a promoter of a common European identity and values, has responded to Brexit by restating his call for a ‘core Europe’. Angela Merkel, he said in a newspaper interview, had ‘throttled the very idea of further European integration at birth’ by insisting on involving all the 27 other states, ‘knowing full well that a constructive agreement with authoritarian nationalists like Orbán or Kaszyński is impossible’.

Based on the Eurozone nations, Habermas believes that the values of his new core Europe would win over the ‘polarised populations of all the member states’, including those currently outside the Eurozone. Within a single currency zone, the nation state can no longer guarantee social welfare or democracy. As a precondition, Germany must abandon its ‘resistance to closer cooperation in financial, economic and social policy’.

So far, so familiar: Habermas is simply saying what he has often said before. The interview sheds no new light on the Leave vote, other than as a specific example of a Europe-wide phenomenon. As for hostility to Europe, Habermas understands this as the product of ‘drastically increased social inequality and the feeling of powerless, that one’s own interests are no more represented among the political classes’. It will, be believes, be resolved through a common social policy and stronger democracy.

Mario Vargas Llosa, who lives in Spain but comes from Peru, has drawn parallels between between diminishing popular support for the EU and the fate of Venezuela. Again, he was speaking in an interview, in response to a question about the range of current protest movements in Europe. Vargas Llosa described these movements, from Syriza and Podemus to Pegida and le Front national, as speaking to a yearning for ‘the small community’ which ‘supposedly offered more security, spoke the same language, went to the same church, drank the same beer’.

For Vargas Llosa, the electoral popularity of the socialist Hugo Chávez represented an ‘obscure nationalism’ which appealed to a people who rejected ‘the unpredictable, the unmanageable, against globalisation and capitalitm’. Chávez’ period in office ‘poisoned the climate with neighbours, caused isolation even in foreign policy – all with the segen des volkes, who believed that they could remove themselves from the wider direction of the world, and return to a predictable because closed society’. His conclusion: ‘Venezuela today is corrupt, one of the poorest countries in the world, Caracas the city with the hightest crime rate’.

I’ve provided my own translations, on the assumption that some other people might be as interested as I am in knowing what these thinkers make of the current crisis in Europe. If you want my opinion on the interviews, I find them both a little underwhelming. But just don’t ask me to do better!

 

Adult learners in England still under attack

In the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that participation in public adult learning could not get much worse. Data updated today, available here, show that after repeated declines in recent years, the number of adults in England taking courses funded by the Skills Funding Agency fell yet again last year.

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The detailed results of the Statistical First Release show that the collapse was sharper than average among those taking ‘Full Level 2 courses’ –  i.e. precisely the skills level that government is prioritising. This group fell by 12.7% over the year. Even worse, though, was the collapse in those taking ‘below Level 2 courses (excluding English and Maths)’, who fell by 21.4%.The numbers in community learning courses fell by 7.2%.

The system did little better by basic skills learners. The number of ESOL learners fell by 5.8%, Maths learners by 6.6%, and other English learners (mostly literacy students) by 5.5%. In fact, the only groups to increase were adult apprentices (very welcome, but they are still well below their peak level two years ago) and those – relatively few – who took Level 4 courses.

Of course, there will be alternatives to publicly provided adult education, with a thriving commercial sector and a very active third sector (think men’s sheds and the U3A). Meanwhile, the poorest and those with the least cultural and social capital will be left behind.

Little wonder that the All-Party Group for Adult Education, chaired by Chi Onwurah, recently reported widespread fears of a ‘stated danger that national policy for adult education could disappear by 2020’. And this for a country with an aging working population, and a poor productivity record, facing massive technological and social changes.